Monday, 20 January 2014

Truth Be Told.

There he was. I could see his blonde head. He was just as cute as I remembered him. Gorgeous, in fact. Would he see me? Would he notice I was there? Never before had I so wanted a boy to turn around and look at me in church. 

At this point, I should probably point out that the boy in question, Jonno, is eight. He was a personal favourite of mine from school last year. Not that I ever had favourites, of course. But he was a favourite. Scrawny as a sparrow, full of life and wonder at the world; eyes wide open, shoelaces undone. I was forever scraping him up off the playground at break-time, wiping away blood and tears, patching him up and sending him off to play again, only to watch him immediately tumble headfirst down some steps.

Recently, several people have asked me why I don’t write much in my blog any more. The truth is that I started writing to ensure that I recorded all the wonderful things the children said and did during my time as a matron. In the cold light of day, however, it’s simply not as endearing or amusing when an adult tells me I look tired, asks me when I’m going to get a proper job or why I’m not married yet. I became acutely aware of this at the carol service where I saw Jonno again. As I walked into the service with my trusty partner in crime, Miss Harris of school librarian fame, I was greeted by another member of staff who still works at the school. She gave me a hug and congratulated me on my beautiful wedding. This baffled me somewhat. I’ve attended six weddings this year, none of which have been my own. Eventually I realised that she’d confused me with Miss Elliott, the chaplaincy assistant at the school, who had recently got married. We look somewhat alike, making it an understandable confusion. 

After the carol service, Miss Harris and I went over to say hello to Jonno and his family. Jonno asked me very excitedly if I’d got married. I explained that no, I hadn’t got married, but Miss Elliott had. He looked at me quizzically and asked, ‘So if you're not Miss Elliott, which one are you then?’
‘I’m Matron Ellie,’ I explained, ‘but as I don’t work at the school anymore you can just call me Ellie now.’
‘Oh marvellous,’ he replied, eyes lit up in excitement as he turned to Miss Harris, ‘does that mean can I call you Harris then?’

When children forget your name or confuse you with another person it feels far less like a personal affront than when an adult does the same. In Jonno’s defence, there is a reason why he might find it so hard to differentiate between Miss Elliott and me. As we look so similar, the children asked fairly early on whether we were sisters. I’m not sure now who it was that winked conspiratorially at the other, but as one we both nodded and said yes. 
‘So Matron Ellie, does that mean your full name is Ellie Elliott?’ piped up one quick thinker.
What could we say? 
‘Yes, yes it does. Goodness only knows what our parents were thinking.’

Although shortly afterwards we explained that we’d just been teasing and we weren’t really sisters, for some reason the idea had embedded into the collective playground psyche. For the following year I answered to a range of monikers including Matron Elliott, Miss Ellie or sometimes even just Miss Elliott. I’m pretty sure that some of the children thought we were one and the same person and that we just liked to change outfits several times a day. No matter how many times we explained that we weren’t sisters and that there was more than one of us, the children simply couldn’t tell us apart. 

Now, I don’t have a biological sister. I always wanted one but had to make do with just my younger brother (whom I do love dearly despite his Y chromosome). Yet I’ve been happy enough to make a number of wonderful female friends in life, whom I would count as close to me as any sister - Miss Elliott included. Whilst the facts of the matter would state that she is not my sister, truthfully she is. 

It is one of the most beautiful paradoxes of this life that fact and truth are not necessarily synonymous. As I’ve got older, the disparity between these two ideas is one that I’ve become increasingly aware of. That which can’t be proven doesn’t necessarily equate to that which is not truthful. Science says that Miss Elliott is not my sister. My feelings for her say she is. Pondering this has led me to believe that whilst facts are empirical, truth is relational. The facts of thoughtless behaviour or an indiscretion can break a relationship. The truth behind this failing can heal it. Facts are unyielding and rigid; they can hold you captive, unable to move forward. The truth sets you free. 

The other moral of the story is: don’t tell lies to children.  They don’t get it. 

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Where The Heart Is.

As I started to write this, I was sat halfway through the seemingly never-ending train journey down from Scotland to the south of England. If ever you wanted, as the song says, a thousand memories of heading home for Christmas, I could regale you with stories of the many eventful incidents, tedious delays and colourful characters that I’ve met over the past few years on this journey back and forth between north and south. For this trip, National Rail, in their infinite wisdom, had assigned me a seat usually reserved for a disabled person, in amongst the old ladies of the quiet carriage. When I politely asked the elderly lady adjacent to me if she wouldn’t mind if I moved her things from my seat in order for me to sit there, she became quite cross and wouldn’t let me take my reservation as I was ‘not an invalid’ and she might need the space to stretch her foot. I offered to sit elsewhere if it was going to upset her but unfortunately the train was so full I had to return to my original seat with a promise to her that she could keep her suitcase in my foot space in case she needed to stretch. She then proceeded to have several very loud conversations on her mobile phone, despite being reminded by the conductor that it was the quiet carriage.  Her phone calls were, however, very important, as she repeatedly reassured me. Personally I felt that the regular updates on the weather that she was giving her son could possibly have waited – especially as it seems to me that anyone who is so keen on observing the rules of the rails should also probably respect the quiet carriage.

It later turned out that she wasn’t even booked into the seat next to me and so, when the rightful owner of F9 got on at Derby, I had to help move her, her suitcase and her foot into several different seats until she finally settled. The journey rumbled on in this farcical manner with another old lady nearby forgetting which suitcase belonged to her, prompting a long delay at Birmingham whilst she instructed different National Rail employees to look for it. Unfortunately she told each one to look out for a suitcase of a different colour meaning it took rather a while – and one failed attempt by her to make off with someone else’s grey case – before the correct, navy blue case, was found. Usually I adore the elderly and their whimsical ways but in this instance I wanted to get my schoolmarm on and order them in my fiercest voice to pick a seat, pick a suitcase and stick with it! All in a long journey home…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about home. Naturally in this season, people ask where you will be for Christmas and, without thinking, I reply, ‘Oh, I’m going home’. It’s true; I am heading home for Christmas, just as I have done every year since I was eleven. It’s what most people do towards the end of December. But what has puzzled me is what I really mean when I say this. Home, as a physical entity, isn’t so clear in my mind. This is partly because my Mother and Step-Father recently upped sticks and moved to the other side of England making this my first Christmas in our new house. Yet, if I’m honest, it probably hasn’t been clear where home is since my parents separated when I was about ten. ‘Home’, as I had always known it, broke in two and every year, regardless of which parent I was spending Christmas with, part of home was always missing. What’s more, since their separation, I’ve spent most of my life away from home; at boarding school, living in France, university, and now Edinburgh. I love these places which have often been the most stable constants in my life and so it seems odd to describe a place where I spend little more than a few weeks a year as home.

Every winter, as Christmas approaches, I'm aware of a mixture of guilt and sadness about this. Sadness as it feels like a certain set of co-ordinates are missing which I would otherwise use to locate myself and guilt in my knowledge that, despite all of this, I have far more of a home than many others. It is, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, as if I feel ‘homesick in {my} home’. Yet a couple of conversations with an older – and probably wiser, although he often hides it well – friend lifted me out of this. Firstly we reached a mutual agreement that Christmas, as a child of divorced parents, is rubbish. No more needed to be said on that subject. Then as we talked more about a real home and what that might look like, especially to those of us in our transitory twenties where residences shift like sand and there are few constant anchoring points, I came to three conclusions. The first is simple: that in order to feel at home I must practice gratitude for what I do have, being aware that it is only a shadow of things to come, a tent for me to live in whilst my real and lasting home is built. The second, paradoxically, is that I should not berate myself when the home I do have feels inadequate. Like a homing pigeon on the wing, I have an innate sense that I’ve not reached my destination yet and that there truly will be no place like home until I get there. If this is true, then the third thing that it leads me to remember is that home is not so much a physical building but something that I carry with me. Just like a snail, my home travels wherever I go: it is part of me. People talk of being a homemaker, but this feeling of at-home-ness is not one I have made myself. It is one that I have been generously given so that I might extend it to other strangers, pilgrims and any travellers lost upon their way.

Especially at Christmas, when I think about the reason why I am travelling home, enduring the tedium of the train journey, I am reminded of this hope which allows me to sing, somewhat tunelessly, with the illustrious Bono,

“Home...I don’t know where it is, but I know I’m going home”.

Photo credit: Sasha - in whose lovely presence I feel at home.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Living the Dream.

Onions and I have what you might term a love-hate relationship. Gently cooking in a pan, bathed in olive oil and crushed garlic, I’ll grant that they produce one of the most mouth-watering smells. Yet the necessary chopping that precedes this stage is, without doubt, my nemesis. I realise that I’m not the only person to tear up whilst slicing onions, but I know of few others who cry such genuine, large, snot-inducing drops, the kind that roll down your face and plop from your cheek onto the chopping board below. I was once sent out of Cookery class at school to pull myself together having cried to the point of sobbing whilst preparing onions to add to my pizza-pitta. I’ve tried most of the tricks and old housewives’ tips to stop the effect the little lachrymatory beggars have on me. I’ve held water in my mouth, chopped with my tongue sticking out and even nearly sliced fingers off attempting to cut through half-frozen onions. Nothing doing. Pride dictates that I’ve never quite reached the level of wearing swimming goggles to chop, but I do occasionally put my glasses on in the hope that they will form some sort of barrier between the onion gasses and my eyes. This, however, is as about as effective as wearing deeply unsexy old sweatpants as a contraceptive. It might slow the process down a tad, but when it comes to the crunch point they provide very little protection.

Sometimes, I kid myself that I don’t really need onions in my cooking. I lie to myself that they’re not that important. When was the last time you heard someone taste a dish and say, ‘Mmm, those onions are delicious’? Never. People comment on the meat, or the sauce or the herbs and spices. Onions go unnoticed. Unnoticed that is, until they’re missing and something tastes slightly bland. All the important bits are present, but there’s a base layer, a foundation that’s lacking. I could leave out the onions in my soups, bolognaises and tartiflettes in an attempt to grant my tear ducts some respite but it just wouldn’t quite be the same. 

I was talking to a friend recently and she mentioned how brave she thought I was, moving up to Edinburgh just as all the friends I used to know here moved away. She said she was in awe of the way I’m having to put myself out there and attend things on my own, pushing through those awkward but necessary first conversations. I was amazed to hear this from her. She’s just given up a secure job to set up her own business making wedding cakes, which has been a passion of hers for a long time. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to take such a risk, no matter how much I liked baking. Yet as we talked, and as I’ve walked around the city the last few days, I’ve become more and more aware that actually what we’re both doing is living out the desires of our hearts.

Before I moved up, I was both encouraged and surprised at the number of people who commented on how great it was that I was doing what I’d always dreamt of. In all the kerfuffle of applying to the university, finding a flat and securing a proper job, not to mention the nervous energy that coursed through me this summer as I prepared, I’d forgotten how much I’d wanted this. Not just to live in Edinburgh, but so many icing-on-the-cake added extras; studying at the university which was originally my first UCAS choice, taking lessons at the fantastic dance school with incredible views of the castle, eating in restaurants I’ve always wanted to try, becoming part of the church whose values I’ve found so inspiring as I’ve listened to their podcasts over the years. I can even go and stare into the eyes of my favourite Rembrandt self portrait on my lunch break if I choose. These desires were all placed in my heart a long time ago and they’re now coming to fruition.

So in answer to my friend, yes, it does take a lot of courage to do what I’m doing. I have to give myself little pep talks as I go to attend another new thing with the fear rattling around in my brain that I might not know anyone and find myself alone in the corner. Yet every time I push through that fear and force myself to do it anyway, I find the fear grows a little less demanding. In fact, it often transpires that it was completely unfounded. Like cooking with onions, I need to lay a foundation for my life here, no matter how uncomfortable that might feel at times, nor how much it might also make me want to cry. If I don’t, then my dreams will never be all I dreamt of, they’ll never have the same fullness of flavour. I take great comfort from this when I feel as if I’m drowning in a sea of small talk in this new place, or worry that it will never feel completely like home. Yet it will, and it will taste all the better if I follow the recipe properly and don't skip out the hard parts…

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Chasing Pavement.

When you move house everything is new. It takes a while to get your bearings, to work out where your nearest supermarket is, how you turn the new oven on, which transport to take around the city. One of the first things I do when I arrive in a new place is to work out some running routes. I hate to admit it, but I like to run. It gives me time to think, to rearrange my head. It also fills me with those good old happy chemicals, endorphins, which I like to think makes me a more pleasant person. In all honesty though, I run because it allows me to eat as much cake as I like.

When I first started running, it used to be more of a scuttle down the road under the cover of darkness so that no one could see me. Now that I’ve improved slightly and no longer resemble Phoebe’s infamous jogging scene in Friends, I’m getting bolder as I search out routes, seeking challenge rather than ease and anonymity. On arrival in Edinburgh, Arthur’s seat was calling to me through my window, laying down the gauntlet, defying me to attempt such a feat. The sun was shining and I hadn’t been for a run in a few days. I gave in, googled a rough route plan and pulled my grotty old trainers on.

All went well for the first 25 minutes, until I began to doubt that I was still on track. Eventually I gave up on my nice circular route and went back roughly the way I had come only to find out later that I had been on the right road and had come about seven tenths of the way before I turned around. Undeterred and ever the sucker for punishment I attempted the same circular route again the next day. This time I made it further before my doubts set in and I found myself wondering if I was lost.

I once knew of a chap who, on his study-abroad year, refused through stubborn pride to ask for directions to the local supermarket. In the end, he sat out on benches, watching for streams of people with carrier bags of groceries, before following the stream in reverse to find the store. I remember thinking how silly it was that he should let his pride stop him from asking for simple directions, but now I found myself in the same position. I’ll admit this was less due to pride and more through fear that my dulcet, almost-RP tones wouldn’t be so well received in the area of town I found myself in, but all the same I continued to run on with no idea as to which roads to take or when the end would be in sight.

Eventually inspiration struck as a bus drove past me that I knew would be stopping outside my flat. Surely we were travelling in the same direction? I began to run after the bus. Of course, this was a short-lived endeavour as busses travel significantly faster than me but I soon found that Edinburgh busses are frequent enough that it wasn’t long before another bus appeared on the same route. And so I spent the final ten minutes of what was now feeling like a marathon chasing after busses in a most unseemly manner in the hope that they would guide me home.

As I ran, I thought about life and how similar it feels sometimes. I know where I’m headed – home – but I often don’t know the route or how long it will take to get there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, it forces me to pace myself as I go, not knowing how long I need to keep going for. If I attempt a sprint finish thinking that the end is just around the corner, then I’m scuppered when it turns out that I still have several more blocks to go. Not knowing the way, or what might be around the next corner means I have to trust that some sort of direction will be provided in due time. It might not take me the whole way, but it will get me where I need for time being. 

Saturday, 1 June 2013

This I Swear.

Growing up, as I did, in a cloud of innocence, I held an unshakeable belief until about the age of 11 that the 'F-Word' was 'fart'. People talked of this elusive and illicit word beginning with ‘F’ and I, having been forbidden from using the word 'fart' by my mother who deemed it uncouth, put two and two together and came up with about 0.3.

This is sadly no longer the case. Just as the media love to trumpet the sad fact that children are becoming sexualised at a much younger age, so too are they exposed to verbal profanities far earlier on than I was. At first I was horrified at the words used by children, all of whom are under the age of ten, when they think I'm out of earshot. Now I have become more used to it and - dare I admit it - even find their childish use and understanding of adult words quite amusing.

My first experience of this came this time last year when I spent three days at the school shadowing the incumbent matron in order to learn the daily routine of the boarding house and meet some of the children before I started in September. One of the nights I spent there, my predecessor and I sat on the landing outside the girls’ dormitories waiting for them to settle down to sleep, when the tiny little face of one of the smallest Year Three girls appeared at the door.
‘Matron,’ she whispered, conspiratorially, ‘just thought you ought to know, Rosie swore...’ she paused before adding as an afterthought, ‘and said something that made Georgina cry.’
‘I see,’ said Matron, ‘and what was it she said?’
‘The C-Word,’ said our little informant, matter-of-factly.
I was taken aback. How could this possibly be? I hadn’t become acquainted with this most vulgar of terms until my mid-teenage years. Was a seven-year old standing before me, telling me that ten-year olds were bandying the word about as if it were any other common-or-garden playground insult?
Matron, from her years of experience, knew better though.
‘Do you mean the C-R-A-P word, sweetheart?’ she whispered back to the child, who took a moment to work out what had just been spelled out to her.
‘C-R-A-P?’ she spelled it off on her own fingers as she mouthed the letters, stringing them together into a word, ‘yes, yes, that was it.’
Crisis averted. Although stern words were, of course, had with Rosie.

One year on, I found myself in the same position. As we left the dining hall the other week, a little girl tugged on my hand and informed me quietly that one of the boys in the year above had used a swear word.
‘A least, I think it was a swearing word,’ she reflected.
My experience has taught me that what the children consider to be swear words can range from the most ugly insults to a simple ‘shut up’ or ‘buzz off’. The little girl in question was from a very well brought-up, polite family and she was often easily shocked by the behaviour of those around her. I decided to draw on the wisdom of the previous matron to determine the strength of the offence.
‘Is there any way you can tell me what he said without using the word itself? Do you think you could spell it for me?’
She nodded. I crouched down and she cupped her hands around my ear to whisper the vile utterance, as if even spelling it aloud could pollute the air around us.
‘B-I-R-C-H… I think.’

Oh dear. Repercussions would have to follow if he really had used the female-dog word. Yet a small part of me was relieved it was only that. Far worse would have been the outcry had his insult of choice been the unforgivable ‘F---  Y-E-W.’ 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Acronyms & Emer-gin-cies.

‘Who even needs ice-packs?’ the school librarian muttered to me as we tried to squeeze a tub of Ben & Jerry’s along with some ice cubes for our G&Ts into an already stuffed freezer compartment. Apparently children do. About every ten minutes if my experience this year is anything to go by.

When I was a child, an accidental whack on the head or a scraped knee was rubbed or kissed better. If it was very serious it might have merited a plaster. Protocol now dictates that any bump on the head must be iced regularly, no matter how insignificant it might seem. The result is that the children see ice packs as a chilly cure-all for any ailment. I was once asked for an ice pack by a little girl who had accidentally had her hair pulled at break time, whilst others have wanted plasters to go on bruises, or temperatures to be taken when they just feel a bit tired. The placebo effect is alive and well in the British boarding school system. As a doctor’s daughter I had to be dead on the doormat to even have a chance of a day off school, always being fed the lie that, if I had a go until lunchtime, ‘Mummy will come and pick you up if you still aren’t feeling well.’ At lunchtime, the response would come that it was now only a few hours until home time, so I could probably manage a bit longer. As such, I have limited patience for all this Drama Queenery regarding medical issues, even though the aforementioned protocol insists that I adhere to policy.

For the children, the Holy Grail of medical treatment is a trip to A&E. To those of such young years this is a mystical place which only features in the equation when even the adults think the malady might be serious. A few weeks ago, during the unseasonal spring gales that April brought with it this year, an incident with a falling cricket sightscreen merited an A&E dash for one of the little girls. As the adult who stayed behind with the remaining children, I was met with a barrage of questions from the youngsters.
‘What does the A stand for?’
‘What does the E stand for?’
‘Do you get your first visit free?’
‘No, Sweetie, thanks to the Labour government and the Beveridge report, you get every visit free!’

Despite the sightscreen’s best efforts, the injury turned out not to be serious or lasting yet the fascination with A&E remained tangible amongst the children for the next few days. Every bump, graze and snotty nose was presented to me with the hopeful question, ‘Do you think I need to go to A&E?’ Eventually the furore died down and both the children and I forgot about it until, a week later, one of the little girl looked at me and asked, ‘Matron do you need to go to AA?’
‘Oh help,’ thought I, ‘she’s found where I hide the gin.’

And then it dawned on me that she’d muddled her acronyms.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

A White Blank Page

I returned to school for the Trinity term to find an email waiting in my inbox wanting to know if I am ‘linked with anyone at present,’ in order to finalise invitations for the staff garden party at the end of the year. Although the email was profusely apologetic for the intrusion into my private life, I found myself strongly tempted to reply, ‘In this job? You must be joking!’ After all when would I meet other, likeminded, twenty-somethings? Between 9am-12pm on a Monday morning when I enjoy some time off whilst the rest of the normal world works? I also wondered how the school files such information: hopefully under S for Single, rather than N for No-Hopers? And, I pondered, how does one inform them of a change in ‘personal circumstances’? Or is the garden party really a big rouse, providing an annual cover under which it becomes acceptable for the school to update their current information on the staff’s private lives?

It turned out that my employers are not the only ones trying to marry me off like a Russian bride. On the children’s return, it wasn’t long before one of them enquired as to whether I had ‘managed to get married over the Easter Holidays yet?’ When I responded in the negative, a look of sympathy flashed across her eight-year-old face as she quietly filed me under L for Lost Cause. A great start to the term.

Interestingly, I’ve come to believe that the way each child greets me at the beginning of every term presents a microcosm of my overall relationship with each individual. In those first few fleeting moments I catch a glimpse of the way they really see me. Take, for example, the ten-year-old boy whose tennis ball I confiscated on the last day of the previous term, who responds to my cheery hello with a gruff, ‘Oh you’re still here’.
Tennis ball clearly not forgotten. Or there’s the incredibly bright little girl, suspected of being slightly further along the Aspergic spectrum than most, who exclaimed, ‘Oh, Matron, how marvellous to see you. Did you know they’ve found philosophical proof for the existence of God?’
Oh marvellous indeed. The absolute chart topper was Milly (of tortoise fame) who flung herself into my arms shrieking ‘My Matron!!’
As I hugged her close and told her how nice it was to have ‘my Milly’ back again, I suddenly realised that she isn’t, in fact, my Milly at all. At the end of the year, along with all the others that I’ve come to love, I’ll have to hand her back into both the far more capable hands of her parents as well as those of the next matron who replaces me. I tried, churlishly, to comfort myself with the thought that I also get to hand over those whom I perhaps haven’t developed quite such a natural depth of feeling for, but I felt that only put a negative spin on things.

As I came to contemplate leaving and all the things I would miss as I moved on to pastures new, I was assaulted by another email wanting to know what I was moving on to and where I would be living, so as to include the information in the trustees report. As I am still awaiting a decision on my Masters application I am unable to answer the former, whilst the staggered house-move currently being attempted by my parents leaves me, as the French would say, sans domicile fixé once I move out of my school accommodation. As a friend and I mulled over the hard facts of the case – that, as of July, I am unemployed, potentially homeless and without a life partner – she helpfully pointed out that I was in possession of all three of these things when I started work at the school. Once again, I found myself having to resist the temptation to reply with an email pointing out this fact so they can put that in their trustee report and smoke it, yet I feel that a negative spin is not the answer in this case either. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see this set of circumstances as a blessing rather than something to bemoan. When I finish my job here, I give back what was never mine to keep and am handed a clean slate, a tabula raza if you will. With nothing to tie me to a certain place or profession the opportunities are endless. What’s more, the fact that I have no specific thing to prepare for or ‘look forward to’ means there is nothing to distract me from making the absolute most of my remaining time here, enjoying these last few precious weeks of being ‘their Matron’ and having them as ‘my children’.

You may, however, need to gently remind me that I filed all these thoughts under P for Positive in the week before half-term when the tennis ball has been re-confiscated and my philosophical facts pertaining to the existence of God quota has been filled to overflowing. My mental filing system often gets a bit muddled at that stage of term…